Best known for his wind ensemble compositions, David Maslanka studied composition with Joseph Wood and did masters and doctoral study in composition at Michigan State University under H. Owen Reed.
Maslanka has published nearly 130 works, of which are forty pieces for wind ensemble such as seven symphonies, fifteen concertos, a Mass, and many concert pieces. His chamber music includes four wind quintets, five saxophone quartets, and many works for solo instrument and piano. In addition, he has written a variety of orchestral and choral pieces.
Maslanka’s compositional style is known to be rhythmically intense and complex, but also highly tonal and melodically-oriented.
This interview was originally conducted and published in 2010.
Cover photo credits: Sue Rissberger Photography
When did you start writing? Were you self taught or did you learn composition formally when you were young?
I started to try to compose as a high school senior (age 18), and became serious about it in my freshman and sophomore years in college. Although I studied composing as an undergraduate, my fundamental training as a composer took place in the five years I spent with H. Owen Reed, Paul Harder, Russell Friedewald, and Gomer Llewellyn Jones at Michigan state University. There I was required to learn to compose in all of the sacred and secular styles from the 16th century to the present.
Did you have any early influences?
Early influences came from my mother’s collection of Classical recordings: Chopin, Schubert, Bach organ music, Rimsky-Korsakov. I first became really aware of modern music at Oberlin College: Schoenberg, Varese, Bartok, Hindemith, and others.
Tell us about your first wind band work you written.
My first piece for wind band was “Concerto for Piano, Winds, and Percussion” (1974-76). Following my doctoral work, the first large piece I conceived of writing was this concerto, rather than something for orchestra. I think I have always been primarily attracted to the sound of wind band/wind ensemble.
By great good fortune, the Piano Concerto had its first performance by the Eastman Wind Ensemble with Frederick Fennell conducting. The soloist was Bill Dobbins, a fabulous player from the Eastman faculty. This performance opened the way to a commission from John Paynter to write what became “A Child’s Garden of Dreams.”
Out of these works you composed for wind band, which of them would you say is the most challenging?
Some of my works are more technique-challenging than others, but all require a deep level of commitment and thought. So it is hard for me to say which pieces are “more challenging.” The ones that are performed the least because they are “too hard” are Symphonies 3 and 5. The “Mass” also has had few performances because of its length, and the need for two choruses and soloists. However, I had a wonderful performance of the Mass this past May in Slovenia.
Your compositional style has also been described as rhythmically complex yet at the same time possessing an underlying beauty. Would you say it is carefully planned out or coming straight from inspiration?
I don’t begin composing with any kind of intellectual plan. How is it possible to know in advance what is supposed to happen?! If a composer starts with an intellectual plan he is already severely limiting what the music can express.
My process is to gather a large amount of musical material – whatever comes to mind – and then to play with these ideas until they begin to form shapes, and show intentions. At that point it is possible to see what a larger shape might be, and that is where all my training in musical forms and procedures comes to bear. I most often sketch two to three times as much material as I actually use in a piece. Inspiration is a wonderful thing! I count on it to give me the big energy of every piece.
Your work, “A Child’s Garden of Dreams” tells five dreams of a child who was going to die. How do you ensure that these scenes are carefully portrayed through your work?
This question in a way gets at the core of composing. The question “how do you ensure” that something works comes from the normal assumption that our rational thinking minds are what make the music “work.” This is not the case. The rational thinking mind can only give shape to a thing that is not itself, a thing which comes from the deep unconscious.
My self-training as a composer is to release my intellectual expectations, release the attempt to make a music “about” something. A simple illustration: The second movement of A Child’s Gardenuses the dream “a drunken woman falls into the water and comes out renewed and sober.” The intellectual mind might say that the music has to have a “water” theme, and maybe some music that illustrates a dramatic plunge into the water. My deep unconscious moved me to a music that was profoundly peaceful, using the folk song “Black is the Color.”
When I wrote this music I did not intellectually understand why it was right for this dream, I just knew that it was. It took about ten years before I was able to say intellectually what this dream and this music might mean. So it can be said that in the creative process the intellectual mind becomes a clear window through which the deeper impulse can pass and come into being. This is true of all music, whether or not it has an explicit programmatic element.
What is the story behind your work, Give Us This Day: Short Symphony for Wind Ensemble?
Give Us This Day came about because of a commission from Eric Weirather, Director of Bands at Ranch Buena Vista High School in Oceanside, California. As the music began to happen it seemed to parallel the reading I was doing in the book For A Future to be Possible by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He is very, very concerned for the future of our planet, and reminds us in this book that a future is possible only if we have a powerful present moment.
Powerful musical experience brings everyone into the present moment, which means that in that moment every mind is deeply attuned to the creative energy of the deep unconscious. Being attuned in this way is our path to world peace, and to proper balance of our species with the rest of nature. My piece ends by quoting the Lutheran hymn Vater unser in Himmelreich – Our Father in Heaven – which is the opening of the Lord’s Prayer. The title Give Us This Day is a phrase that everyone knows from the Lord’s Prayer, and it becomes a powerful reminder about living in the present moment.
Many of your Symphonies such as No. 2 and 4 have become popular wind ensemble repertoire. What do you think about that?
I am very pleased that some of my Symphonies have become popular! Music can move people very deeply. It can alter the course of lives, and help people become fully themselves. It is very humbling for me to see this music of mine touching many, many lives in a very powerful way.
One theory for your residence in Missoula, Montana is because when you look at it in the map of the United States, it is the ‘eye’ of a face that looks west. Is there relation between this fact and any of your music?
Before we moved to Missoula, Montana (living in New York City), I looked at a map of Montana and saw that the western boundary of the state looked like the profile of a man’s face, and that Missoula looked like the eyeball. It was a whimsical idea, but it seemed somehow fitting, and related to the feeling that we were being pulled to Montana. This image of the eye in the face has not directly become a part of any piece of mine, but the living energy of the earth at this place certainly has. It has inspired all of the music I have written here, which is a lot!
You have already composed nearly 100 works. Can you share with us any upcoming plans for your music?
I have composed more than 100 works, and don’t yet see an end to my composing. In the past year I have written works for flute and piano, clarinet and piano, saxophone and piano, two pianos/two percussion, and am now writing a concerto for flute, cello and wind ensemble. I hope next year to write Symphony No.9, and to continue writing as long as I am physically and mentally able. I truly enjoy writing large pieces, and hope to write more symphonies and concertos.